When the scruffy roots-rockers Band of Horses stopped in Nashville in April 2013 for a two-night stand at the Ryman Auditorium, they had no idea it would be a career-changing trip.
The group had already earned a loyal, national following and had four albums under their belt but wanted to shake things up. In honor of the venue’s historic status, the boys decided to treat fans to a never-before-tried acoustic set.
“Probably the biggest song we have is called ‘The Funeral,’ and that was the scariest thing — to go up there and try it a different way than we had ever done before,” recalled singer and bandleader Ben Birdwell. “The final note of that song — the relief of knowing we actually got through it — was a very pleasurable moment for me.”
Ultimately, the unplugged reworkings of their songs would prove so popular, the band released an album recorded during those magical nights (Acoustic at the Ryman) and embarked on an all-acoustic tour in support of the release.
When they swung back through Nashville for a Live at CMT performance and their second trip to the Ryman sans electricity, Birdwell, multi-instrumentalist Ryan Monroe and drummer Creighton Barrett took time to explain the musical detour.
CMT: A lot of your songs lend themselves well to acoustic treatment, so has an album like this always been part of the plan?
Birdwell: Absolutely not. We were recording an entire tour’s worth of shows — like a month or something — and we had two nights at the Ryman, so we thought we’d do like 45 minutes of acoustic and then our usual rock set. But when we listened back to everything, we were just drawn to the acoustic stuff because it was so far out of our comfort zone that it was more interesting, I guess.
Barrett: It was down to the wire, right before the doors opened, for these guys. Like, we’re onstage still trying to decide which songs to do, which ended up being that recording. So the magic really is just the urgency of being like, “… Shit.”
How did you ultimately end up deciding which songs to do?
Birdwell: Well, that’s the thing. We weren’t looking at the set list going, “This is going to be a live album.” We were thinking, “What can we do at all?” So we just played those songs that we thought we could rearrange, and then after the fact, we were like, “Wow.” It was never meant to be like a “greatest hits” kind of set or anything like that because we intentionally avoided some of the bigger ones. … We only had 15 songs to choose from over two nights.
Monroe: And now, somehow, we’re doing two hours acoustically.
Birdwell: It’s just magic, man.
As a roots-rock band with members from Seattle and North Carolina, was the Ryman an important place to you guys? Why play there at all?
Barrett: I think all of our hearts have been somewhat touched by the Ryman. Growing up in the South, for one, but if you delve into any kind of American country music, like bluegrass, the Ryman is one of the first things you run into. It seems to be the epicenter of people getting together to do that sort of … not lost art but just vanishing art.
After that show, your all-acoustic concept started to take off. How has the band evolved musically?
Birdwell: I think we’ve gotten more comfortable with the acoustic thing. We’re really leaning on the talents of geniuses like Ryan, Tyler [Ramsey] and Bill [Reynolds].
Barrett: Ryan just started playing mandolin. He’s only been doing that for, what, three months?
Monroe: I’m in love with it. I love it so much.
When you strip the band down to acoustic, does it put more pressure on you as musicians?
Birdwell: It certainly exposes different things, but there are also a lot of things it enhances. It enhances the core of the song a lot of times or allows us to be weird with the tempos or arrangements, so a lot of times, it strengthens things.
See the exclusive videos of “Part One,” “Everything’s Gonna Be Undone,” “Older” and “Laredo” on the Live @ CMT page, or enjoy them below.